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Ikea meets Lego: Google redesigns its office space.

Before the pandemic, Google’s sprawling campus of airy, open offices and whimsical common spaces set a standard for what an innovative workplace was supposed to look like.

Now, the company is creating a workplace for the Covid era, with a concept perhaps best described as Ikea meets Lego.

Instead of rows of desks next to cookie-cutter meeting rooms, Google is designing “Team Pods.” Chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be wheeled into various arrangements, and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours. It is building outdoor work areas to respond to concerns about the coronavirus.

At its Silicon Valley headquarters, it has converted a parking lot and lawn area into a “camp,” with clusters of tables and chairs under open-air tents. The area is a fenced-in mix of grass and wooden deck flooring about the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout.

David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president for real estate and workplace services, said that while moving more than 100,000 employees to virtual work last year was daunting, “now it seems even more daunting to figure out how to bring them back safely.”

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The Googleplex of the Future Has Privacy Robots, Meeting Tents and Your Very Own Balloon Wall

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google’s first office was a cluttered Silicon Valley garage crammed with desks resting on sawhorses.

In 2003, five years after its founding, the company moved into a sprawling campus called the Googleplex. The airy, open offices and whimsical common spaces set a standard for what an innovative workplace was supposed to look like. Over the years, the amenities piled up. The food was free, and so were buses to and from work: Getting to the office, and staying there all day, was easy.

Now, the company that once redefined how an employer treats its workers is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that will accommodate employees who got used to working from home over the past year and don’t want to be in the office all the time anymore.

The company will encourage — but not mandate — that employees be vaccinated when they start returning to the office, probably in September. At first, the interior of Google’s buildings may not appear all that different. But over the next year or so, Google will try out new office designs in millions of square feet of space, or about 10 percent of its global work spaces.

Reuters conference in December that the company was committed to making hybrid work possible, because there was an opportunity for “tremendous improvement” in productivity and the ability to pull in more people to the work force.

“No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid work force model,” Mr. Pichai wrote in an email a few weeks later announcing the flexible workweek. “It will be interesting to try.”

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The Week in Business: Amazon Defeats the Union

Good morning. Here are the top stories in business and tech to know for the week ahead. — Charlotte Cowles

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

Large companies are often good at dodging taxes to maximize profits for their shareholders. But President Biden wants to make that harder with a new tax code that would raise tax rates and close loopholes for American corporations with annual incomes exceeding $2 billion. The plan is intended to bring in enough tax revenue to fund Mr. Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. If it gets through Congress (and that’s a big if), what’s to stop companies from moving profits overseas to tax shelters like the Cayman Islands? The Biden administration has a plan for that, too: a global minimum tax rate that would apply to multinational corporations regardless of where they’re located.

Amazon won its fight against the biggest push for unionization in the company’s history. The tally of votes showed that workers at its giant warehouse in Alabama had decided against forming a union. The results will need to be certified by federal officials. But it’s a big blow to union organizers and Democrats who believed that the timing was right for organized labor to gain momentum around the country. It’s also a major victory for Amazon, which has been accused of union-busting in several states.

New jobless claims were up for the second consecutive week, a sign that employment gains, while still promising, will be uneven for a time. Even though employers added an impressive 916,000 jobs in March, the economy is still 8.4 million jobs short of where it was before the pandemic. And many sectors that were almost totally wiped out — like travel, restaurants and bars — are only now starting to come back.

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

Coinbase will become the first publicly traded cryptocurrency exchange in the United States when it posts its shares to the Nasdaq this Wednesday. It has become the biggest American cryptocurrency company by making it easy for people to buy and sell Bitcoin and other digital tokens. (The firm charges a fee each time a customer places a trade order.) Last week, Coinbase said it expected a first-quarter revenue of about $1.8 billion. That’s a whopping increase of about 847 percent from the previous year, mostly thanks to Bitcoin’s recent rally.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is suing the federal government to allow cruise ships to resume sailing from the state’s ports. The boats must meet requirements put in place last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before they can take passengers, but the industry says that the directions lack clarity. Separately, several cruise lines have announced plans to resume operations from other ports in the Caribbean and Bermuda, often with requirements that all passengers be vaccinated. But Mr. DeSantis has prohibited Florida businesses from asking patrons to show proof of vaccination.

As the coronavirus pandemic caused shutdowns, undocumented immigrants were hit especially hard. Their communities suffered disproportionately from high death rates, and they were largely ineligible for unemployment insurance and other pandemic aid. Until now, that is. In New York, the government is offering one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic and could not get access to other jobless benefits. The money will come out of a $2.1 billion fund in the state budget, which critics say should have gone to legal New Yorkers who are struggling.

struck a five-year deal to give the streaming giant exclusive rights to its films once they leave theaters. In France, Ikea is facing a new lawsuit over a decade-old case in which its executives spied on employees and customers. And more bad news for Boeing: The company has told airlines to ground some of its troubled 737 Max jets — the same model that was grounded for over a year after two deadly crashes — because of an electrical issue.

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State Jobless Claims Climb, Showing Continued Stress on Labor Market: Live Updates

filed first-time claims for state jobless benefits last week, an increase of 18,000, the Labor Department said. It was the second consecutive weekly increase after new claims hit a pandemic low.

At the same time, 152,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 85,000.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

Claims rose above one million early in the year but have come down since then, helped by the spread of vaccinations, the easing of restrictions on businesses in many states and the arrival of stimulus funds.

Most individuals received payments of $1,400 in recent weeks as part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion relief package, and the funds should bolster consumer spending in the coming months.

On Friday, the government reported that employers added 916,000 jobs in March, twice February’s gain and the most since August. The unemployment rate dipped to 6 percent, the lowest since the pandemic began, with nearly 350,000 people rejoining the labor force.

Still, there is plenty of ground to make up.

Even after March’s job gains, the economy is 8.4 million jobs short of where it was in February 2020. Entire sectors, like travel and leisure, as well as restaurants and bars, are only beginning to recover from the millions of job losses that followed the pandemic’s arrival.

The ballots in the union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are expected to be counted by hand starting either Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.
Credit…Charity Rachelle for The New York Times

The union seeking to represent workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama said late Wednesday that there were 3,215 ballots cast — or about 55 percent of the roughly 5,800 workers who were eligible to vote.

The ballots are expected to be counted by hand starting either Thursday afternoon or Friday morning in the National Labor Relations Board’s office in Birmingham, according to the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. Hundreds of ballots are being contested, mostly by Amazon, the union said.

The vote counting will be shown on a videoconference call to a small number of outsiders, including journalists, in addition to representatives from the union and the company.

Union elections are typically held in person, but the labor board determined that the election should be conducted by mail to minimize risks during the pandemic. The ballots were sent to workers in early February and were due at the agency before March 30. Since then, Amazon and the union have had a chance to challenge whether particular worker were eligible to vote.

When the public counting is done, the agency will announce the formal results if the margin of victory for one side is greater than the number of contested ballots.

If the margin is narrower, then it could take two to three weeks for the N.L.R.B. to hold a hearing to sort through the contested ballots and take evidence from both sides on whether they should be counted.

The Baoshan Second Reservoir. Not a single typhoon made landfall during last year’s rainy season.
Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Officials are calling Taiwan’s drought its worst in more than half a century. And it is exposing the enormous challenges involved in hosting the island’s semiconductor industry, which is an increasingly indispensable node in the global supply chains for smartphones, cars and other keystones of modern life.

Chip makers use lots of water to clean their factories and wafers, the thin slices of silicon that make up the basis of the chips, Raymond Zhong and Amy Chang Chien report for The New York Times. In 2019, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s facilities in Hsinchu consumed 63,000 tons of water a day, according to the company, or more than 10 percent of the supply from two local reservoirs.

In recent months, the government has:

But the most sweeping measure has been the halt on irrigation, which affects 183,000 acres of farmland, around a fifth of Taiwan’s irrigated land.

The Taiwanese public appears to have decided that rice farming is less important, both for the island and the world, than semiconductors. The government is subsidizing growers for the lost income. But Chuang Cheng-deng, 55, worries that the thwarted harvest will drive customers to seek out other suppliers, which could mean years of depressed earnings.

The Ikea store in Franconville, France, where employees were monitored, documents showed.
Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Prosecutors are accusing the French arm of Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant, and some of its former executives of engineering a “system of espionage” from 2009 to 2012, in a criminal trial that has riveted public attention in France.

The alleged snooping was used to investigate employees and union organizers, check up on workers on medical leave and size up customers seeking refunds for botched orders, Liz Alderman reports for The New York Times. A former military operative was hired to execute some of the more clandestine operations.

In all, 15 people are charged. A verdict from a panel of judges is scheduled for June 15.

The case stoked outrage in 2012 after the emails were leaked to the French news media, and Ikea promptly fired several executives in its French unit, including its chief executive. There is no evidence that similar surveillance happened in any of the other 52 countries where the global retailer hones a fresh-faced image of stylish thriftiness served with Swedish meatballs.

Victims’ lawyers described a methodic operation that ran along two tracks: one involving background and criminal checks of job candidates and employees without their knowledge, and another targeting union leaders and members.

Ikea’s lawyer, Emmanuel Daoud, denied that systemwide surveillance had been carried out at Ikea’s stores in France. He argued that any privacy violations had been the work of a single person, Jean-François Paris, the French unit’s head of risk management.

Emails and receipts showed that Mr. Paris handed much of the legwork to Jean-Pierre Fourès, who surveilled hundreds of job applicants, gleaning information from social media and other sources to speed vetting and hiring. He also did background checks on unsuspecting customers who tangled with Ikea over big refunds. He insisted that he had never broken the law in gathering background material.

The surveillance encompassed career workers. In one case, Mr. Fourès was hired to investigate whether Ikea France’s deputy director of communications and merchandising, who was on a yearlong sick leave recovering from hepatitis C, had faked the severity of her illness when managers learned she had traveled to Morocco.

A Carnival cruise ship docked last year in Long Beach, Calif. The cruise line has threatened to move its ships outside of U.S. ports.
Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A “help wanted” sign at a Home Depot in Mount Prospect, Ill. Confidence about hiring in the U.S. economy is growing.
Credit…Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

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Ikea France is accused of surveilling unions, employees and customers.

Prosecutors are accusing the French arm of Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant, and some of its former executives of engineering a “system of espionage” from 2009 to 2012, in a criminal trial that has riveted public attention in France.

The alleged snooping was used to investigate employees and union organizers, check up on workers on medical leave and size up customers seeking refunds for botched orders, Liz Alderman reports for The New York Times. A former military operative was hired to execute some of the more clandestine operations.

In all, 15 people are charged. A verdict from a panel of judges is scheduled for June 15.

The case stoked outrage in 2012 after the emails were leaked to the French news media, and Ikea promptly fired several executives in its French unit, including its chief executive. There is no evidence that similar surveillance happened in any of the other 52 countries where the global retailer hones a fresh-faced image of stylish thriftiness served with Swedish meatballs.

Victims’ lawyers described a methodic operation that ran along two tracks: one involving background and criminal checks of job candidates and employees without their knowledge, and another targeting union leaders and members.

unsuspecting customers who tangled with Ikea over big refunds. He insisted that he had never broken the law in gathering background material.

The surveillance encompassed career workers. In one case, Mr. Fourès was hired to investigate whether Ikea France’s deputy director of communications and merchandising, who was on a yearlong sick leave recovering from hepatitis C, had faked the severity of her illness when managers learned she had traveled to Morocco.

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A ‘System of Espionage’ Reigned at Ikea, a French Prosecutor Charges

VERSAILLES, France — The USB stick mysteriously appeared from an unidentified deliveryman. It held an explosive trove: a cache of startling emails detailing an intricate effort by Ikea executives in France to dig up information on employees, job applicants and even customers.

“Tell me if these people are known to the police,” read one executive’s message to a private investigator, seeking illicit background checks on hundreds of Ikea job applicants.

“A model worker has become a radical employee representative overnight,” read another. “We need to find out why.”

A decade after those emails surfaced, they are at the center of a criminal trial that has riveted public attention in France. Prosecutors are accusing the French arm of Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant, and some of its former executives of engineering a “system of espionage” from 2009 to 2012.

The alleged snooping was used to investigate employees and union organizers, check up on workers on medical leave and size up customers seeking refunds for botched orders. A former military operative was hired to execute some of the more clandestine operations.

The case stoked outrage in 2012 after the emails were leaked to the French news media, and Ikea promptly fired several executives in its French unit, including its former chief executive. There is no evidence that similar surveillance happened in any of the other 52 countries where the global retailer hones a fresh-faced image of stylish thriftiness served with Swedish meatballs.

unsuspecting customers who tangled with Ikea over big refunds. He insisted that he had never broken the law in gathering background material.

Some Ikea managers tapped police sources to gain access to government databases for job applicants at up to nine stores, seeking records on drug use, theft and other serious offenses. People whose files turned up “dirty” would not be hired, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. As in the United States, applicants in France must consent to background checks.

The surveillance encompassed career workers. In one case, Mr. Fourès was hired to investigate whether Ikea France’s deputy director of communications and merchandising, who was on a yearlong sick leave recovering from hepatitis C, had faked the severity of her illness when managers learned she had traveled to Morocco.

He engaged a contact to pose as an airline worker and ask the 12-year Ikea employee, Virginie Paulin, to furnish copies of her passport stamps to win a free ticket offer. The passport confirmed her travel to Morocco.

“Excellent!” Mr. Baillot, the chief executive at the time, wrote in an email to Mr. Paris and Claire Héry, who was the director of human resources. “We’ll do more checks after Christmas to corner her,” he wrote. (Ms. Héry’s lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, said there was no evidence she had been aware of systemic surveillance. The charges against her were dropped.)

told The New York Times in 2012 that she had a second home in Morocco, and had flown there to recuperate from her illness. She said she had been so distraught by her dismissal that she attempted suicide.

Ikea officials paid particular attention to unions and their efforts to recruit members. In 2010, tensions erupted when Adel Amara, a union leader at an Ikea store in Franconville, northwest of Paris, rallied employees to strike for a 4 percent raise. Ikea said the strike had cost it millions of euros in lost sales.

After that, Ikea “tried to prevent more strikes by turning to a system of espionage,” said Vincent Lecourt, a lawyer for one of the store’s French unions. Ikea managers set up a surveillance net to gather information to fire Mr. Amara and curb militant union activity, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

GSG, a French security company hired by Mr. Paris, advised Ikea to set a “legal trap” for Mr. Amara, and sent one of its agents to pose as a cashier, court documents showed. The mole infiltrated workers’ ranks, reporting conversations with Mr. Amara and his wife, also an Ikea employee, while spying on a number of other union activists.

“Their plan was to infiltrate the unions and explode them from the inside,” Mr. Lecourt said.

Mr. Paris also hired a bodyguard disguised as an administrative assistant with the goal, he testified, of protecting officials who claimed that Mr. Amara had harassed them. Mr. Amara was later found liable by a criminal judge for moral harassment after Ikea France filed a complaint.

Mr. Daoud, Ikea France’s lawyer, said there was no proof of the unions’ allegations. “There was no hunting down of union members,” he said.

That claim has not doused a sense of injustice among workers who said they were forever marked by the moment they learned their employer was spying on them.

Soon after Ikea fired Mr. Amara in 2011, he said in an interview, a USB stick was delivered to his home by a person who refused to identify himself, containing the explosive email trove that became the basis of the lawsuit.

The documents included receipts of nearly €1 million for surveillance operations, as well as a 55-page internal report on Mr. Amara’s union activities, personal situation and legal records dating to when he was a teenager. There were lists naming hundreds of job applicants and employees to undergo undisclosed checks, as well as the orders to investigate some customers.

“That’s when I understood that Ikea was spying this whole time, and that it was a regular practice,” Mr. Amara said. “It was absolutely surreal.”

Mr. Amara said he took the USB stick to French news outlets, he said, unleashing the media firestorm around Ikea France that led to police investigations and the current trial.

“Ikea acted as if it was all powerful over its employees,” he said.

“If Ikea hadn’t been exposed,” he added, “it would have just kept going.”

Gaëlle Fournier contributed reporting.

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